True Believer: My Friendship with Cynthia Ozick


Merrill Joan Gerber

In June, 1965, Cynthia Ozick reviewed my first book of short stories, Stop Here, My Friend, in Midstream magazine. “This,” Cynthia wrote, “is a book about contemporary American Jews; so, of course, it is not a very ‘Jewish’ book…There are unmistakable Jewish signs and scenes here…there is a steerage courtship that revolves around a herring…a rich uncle dies in Brooklyn and a kaddish is said, an overindulgent mother flies up from Florida, unwanted, to help her daughter with her firstborn. In spite of all this, Miss Gerber’s stories are without what is usually referred to as ‘Jewish consciousness.’ … Miss Gerber is a member of an expanding host, all these young Jewish writers who are turning out Jewish-flavored stories with nothing Jewish in them but the odor of the corner delicatessen… Perhaps, for once, they, like Miss Gerber, should bypass Redbook and strike out for the Red Sea.”

When I read the review I felt not only a blow, but an insult as well—a dismissal by a woman writer of a woman who published stories in women’s’ magazines. In the sixties, these publications were shining beacons inviting fiction from women writers. Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s—all invited us to send our work directly, no agents needed. Redbook alone published four stories a month as well as a novella. Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother that she yearned to be published in the Ladies’ Home Journal.

After Stop Here, My Friend, I published other books and stories in the following years, many having to do with my childhood memories of growing up in Brooklyn, with tales of my grandmother’s journey from Poland to America, in steerage, at the age of seventeen, to escape the terrors unfolding in her shtetel at home. When I was a little girl, she taught me simple words of Yiddish while my aunt supervised my cooking of kreplach and mandelbrot. Each fall, my father came home from the Avenue N shul on Yom Kippur, fasting, unshaven, yet exalted in some way. My flyer cousin, “The Lost Airman,” was shot down by Japanese Zeros over New Guinea and his younger brother, fighting Hitler in the European theater, had his leg destroyed by shrapnel as he flew a bomber over Germany.

When reviews of my books were published, I read them tentatively, fearing I might once again come upon a comment like the words of Cynthia Ozick: “Nothing Jewish in them.” In every house on my Brooklyn street lived Jews— and in many windows were gold stars.

Eighteen years after Cynthia spoke her judgement about my failings in Midstream, a friend called to tell me Cynthia Ozick would be speaking at one of the Claremont Colleges, that she and her husband were going and that I should go with them. “Not for me,” I said.

“Oh, just come with us, it should be interesting.”

I don’t recall exactly what Cynthia spoke about that night, but her talk had the same accusatory tone she’d used in the review of my book, asserting that there were Jews with a genuine Jewish consciousness (Orthodox Jews, like herself), and that there were the “other” Jews. In the question-and-answer period, a man of serious demeanor raised his hand. “I am a Reform Rabbi,” he said. “If Jews were under attack, would you accept me into your fortress?” Cynthia replied without hesitation that in all honesty she could not. The rabbi stood and walked out.

Following Ozick’s talk, I walked with my friend to the table where Cynthia was signing books. Afterward, I found myself standing next to her as she was gathering up her papers and purse and I said, “I’m a teacher and I have taught your story, ‘The Shawl,’ in my class.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

I told her.

“Oh,” she said, “I know who you are! I reviewed your book of stories. It was the first book review I ever did.”

“Yes, and it was a stinging review.”

“Oh no! I remember that I liked it.”

“If you give me your address, I’ll find a copy of the review and send it to you,” I said. Cynthia willingly wrote her address for me and I gave her mine. Her voice was sweet and conciliatory, so different from the tone in which she had addressed the reform rabbi and others who had questioned her during her talk. “I’m sure you’re wrong,” she said, as we left the auditorium. “I’m sure I liked your book.”

I wrote first:

February 15, 1983

Dear Cynthia

Your review of Stop Here, My Friend was in the June, 1965 Midstream. When I looked it up, I realized that there was really nothing I could do to correct my colorless, unhistoric Jewish way of life and furthermore, I was unwilling to leave Redbook for the Red Sea, since Redbook was helping to pay the bills… In fact, I am the daughter of a mother who held the old customs in contempt, who ridiculed them, and fooled my father once by substituting a pork chop for a lamb chop and then laughing because he didn’t know the difference. She desired to become a genteel American woman like her gentile elementary school teachers. On the other hand, we lived with my aunt and grandmother who were reverent Jews, and committed to the importance of Jewish values (if sometimes confused about whether or not to eat Chinese food).

Several times, after we moved to California with our children, we visited synagogues, intending to join one of them, but found we didn’t have the impetus to stay on.When our daughters complained that the Sunday school teachers were often wrong about the Old Testament stories (since my husband is a history professor, they knew many of the basics already)—we just gave up.

From your talk last night, I realize you believe there are no excuses—I understand your conviction that the true and serious mode of a Jew is the Orthodox… but like any devotion, it has to be done with the whole mind and heart. In any case, despite my failings in your eyes, I was very glad to meet you.

Next time you come to California, I’d be happy if you called me.

Merrill Joan Gerber

February 18, 1983

Dear Merrill Gerber,

I didn’t remember anything negative in that long-ago review! …I have no copy of it, and wonder what it said. If it said something hurtful, that feels strange; because all these years I have kept your name as a writer of great gifts. I was tremendously glad to see how you have gone on, so prolifically, so richly; and I’ll look up the novels I missed. Your mother substituting pork chops for lamb chops to “fool” your father was like Jacob, substituting himself for Esau, “The Hairy One,” and out of Jacob came Israel! So your children or your children’s children may yet form a redemptive generation…A Jew who eats a pork chop condones slavery and not just in Egypt…

I don’t, by the way, speak out of “orthodoxy"—only out of continuity… Please read my Enlightenment essay in the February Commentary! …It is true that "life as we live it is just another form of Jewish history"—but why the vessel without the content, why an empty pot?

Cynthia Ozick

March 3, 1983

Dear Cynthia—

I thought you might like to see the Midstream review, so have made you a copy. Your review is not so different in theme from parts of your Commentary essay; the narrowness of the enlightened Jewish life. I don’t see my enlightened life as narrow. When I hear Yiddish, my heart leaps. I lived in our home with my grandmother for fourteen years and she spoke very little English. Yet you might think I fell into enemy hands. When I went off to college at the University of Florida, I began to love literature and admire the minds of my non-Jewish professors who seemed to have a wider view of the world than my relatives in Brooklyn. My husband, who plays harpsichord, used to put on the phonograph a record of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and play it for hours a day when we were both going to grad school at Brandeis—and I felt we were traitors in some way. On the cover of the album was Christ himself, in agony. When my father came to visit and saw the album jacket, I was embarrassed. I think you were blessed with early focus: I suspect you never doubted your commitment. Certainly, by now, you are able to argue with the most learned of rabbis and scholars.

Best, Merrill

Cynthia wrote back, and I replied at once. Within a month, we were engaged in a passionate correspondence about what it meant to be Jewish and whether we two, on opposite sides of the divide, could be friends. It took thirty-three more years to discover the answer.

On April 3, 1983, she wrote to me:

"You write ‘with the friends I have that are not Jewish, I can only be myself perhaps… 50% of the time. Maybe less.’ What does this mean? What is being hidden? What is feared? Aren’t we supposed to say the same thing to everyone? Otherwise you end like St. Paul, the Great Hypocrite, who commends, and recommends, being all things to all people… It seems to me you’ve chosen the "liberalism” that brings culture to a dead end, and is left with nothing but the rags and tatters of memories of the immigrant generation’s memories and experiences. Here we’ve just come through Passover: we’ve got a separate Passover kitchen in the basement. A consummation and a consuming: but after all it’s about being FREE. There wasn’t a single word in your letter that sounded like the utterance of a free human being. In fact, your description of what I take to be Jewish loyalties comes out as a denial of Passover, as a description of slavery…I don’t ask forgiveness for my polemical passions; though I shouldn’t care. You are free to relinquish it all. I shouldn’t grieve for your children, though I desperately do. Please understand that I do understand that they are gifted and brilliant and sensitive and distinguished—how I don’t want to lose them, because of their splendor!

All warm best, Cynthia

April 17, 1983

Cynthia, I spent all day yesterday writing letters to you in my head. Whatever I write will be a muddle; you know your powers of argument are so formidable, and you are so obviously right, at least from your point of view, that there IS no argument.

But then I want to say, but. But I am not you, I did not have your experiences, I was not trained as you were trained, my path was not your path… You remember that Tevye sends away his daughter without saying goodbye; only his wife can show love. I have no patience with him, for whatever reasons he has! Reasons are not people.

I am angry that you would give me up, or that you say I write “like a stranger.” I love many of the things you love; I share some of your past, if not all. I am more with you certainly than against you. But when everyone, God forbid, lines up in their personal fortresses, if you are at the gate of the Jewish city walls, you will turn me away because I don’t want ANY fortresses, or walls, or hateful separations.

People turn away from you because they cannot face your wrath and your determination. They want your kindness and they get your disapproval and the fire in your eye. (I heard people talking as they left your lecture. Many have to turn away from such a force as yours.)

But I also find in you a sweetness, a great human love, and sensitivity to suffering which is exquisite. I don’t know Biblical history as you do and I never will. I haven’t time to make your subject my subject. I am still discovering my subject. I struggle every day. I can’t let you take away from me what I feel is at my core after all, my Jewish identity (weak or meaningless though it may seem to you). If my children have great intelligence, it is their Jewish intelligence, and if they make beautiful things out of it for the world, it’s real and it’s fine and they’re aware of where it comes from.

If I can’t be honest in the Christian world, personally, I try to be honest in my writing, and in my letters to you. I don’t feel I have no freedom, not while I can write…

I have a neighbor, a woman who used to wave to Hitler in parades. She is a good German hausfrau and she has coffee in my house. I would help her if she called on me. I don’t want to keep the fires of hate burning and I don’t want to have to take my place in the fortress, holding a gun. Just as Jews were shot by Hitler for no other reason than they were Jews, Jews should be allowed no matter what to come into your circle because they are Jews.

I invite you here any time. Love, Merrill

April 22, 1983

Well, I can see that you & I can talk for a lifetime. So let’s do that. Love, Cynthia

I think we were both delighted to find a companion who was eager to write long letters, several a week—whose ideas did not have to wait months or years for publication, but which could get an immediate response from the other within days. I was a fervent typist who could transform a thought to words with ease. Cynthia scrawled her letters to me mostly in script or sent postcards filled to the very edges as if bursting with words beyond their limits. I sent my letters in long green envelopes and watched with great anticipation for delivery of her little white envelopes addressed in her tiny writing.

April 28, 1983

Dear Cynthia—It’s true we can’t keep up this volley; I can sense we’re both getting tired, and my feelings tell me I want to step over the net and work on your side… so why don’t we proceed, tentatively (if you want to) as just little girls getting to know each other (God knows I always feel like a little girl, maybe you do, too) and maybe get to be friends. To start, I will send you pictures of all of us. My fifteen year old daughter (sixteen on Sunday) reads and re-reads Anne Frank’s diary and cries, and has told me that she feels because Anne died so young, it’s her duty, in a way, to live the kind of life Anne might have lived. (Do you think this is sentimental?) We could easily go on and on. I’d like to, at a slower pace, perhaps, less monumentally. It’s scary here at the typewriter, and comforting to know you’re there at your desk, chipping away at the dark.

Love, Merrill

May 3, 1983

Oh, those flowering, flowery daughters! The sixteen year old touches me. Merrill, not only do I always feel like “a little girl,” I feel like an infant! Some mornings I re-enter the womb, where I certainly did like it. Will the grave be like that, contemplative, no responsibility? No, the womb is full of hope and solace, the grave empty. Putting a story away instead of sending it to The New Yorker?! Oh no. Publication hasn’t anything to do with ego! It’s simply finishing what you’ve written—it’s the communication. It’s unfair to wring a story from your heart and then hide it—it’s unfair to the story. And its insights can’t hurt; they can only illumine. All illumination turns, as you are helping me discover, into an embrace…You are so kind hearted, Merrill, that I see you must be the ideal mother. I have often been the wicked stepmother.

OK, let’s not fight. OK, we’re friends. Love, Cynthia

Cynthia and I endlessly discussed the pangs of writing, the indifference and cruelty of editors and agents, the growing up of our girls—my three daughters, and her one daughter, Rachel, who was the same age as my middle child. We discussed our domestic crises—squirrels in her attic, raccoons in mine, the problems of our bodies, my palpitations and her irritable bowel. She often mentioned that I was too engaged with the “quotidian"—the petty stuff of daily life—while she had bigger fish to fry. I knew she must have correspondents with whom she discussed political and metaphysical subjects, while I was engaged with raising three children, caring for a sick mother and aunt, cooking meals for my family and at the same time writing my stories and novels. For a time she let the issues of Jewish loyalties lay quiet. We discussed our devotion to writing and our struggles. Her strident and argumentative tone mellowed—she was all about our being dear friends. By this time, Cynthia was writing me letters of recommendation for literary awards and commiserating with me over the rejections I received for a novel I’d written.

In 1982 my eldest daughter, Becky, married a man who was a member of the Unitarian Church. The wedding was in his church. No rabbi was present. Cynthia expressed horror when I told her he broke the traditional glass at the end of the ceremony. A few years later, she was again aghast when my youngest daughter, Susanna, won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany. Upon hearing the news, Cynthia’s immediate response to me was, "How can you let your child go to that cloaca of the world?” In 1990, when we were updating our old kitchen in the house, she wrote: “Speaking of which, I was dismayed to the depths that you are getting kitchen equipment from West Germany. They export poison gas equipment as easily as they do countertops, and with the same easy motives: money, money, money. Now comes the subject I shouldn’t take up, Merrill. I love you too much to enter this old stuff again—it’s just blown away, it isn’t here, there’s nothing but love and closeness and pleasure and admiration. Which you know. Yet I felt a stab when you said on the telephone something like, "You would feel terrible if Rachel had a Gentile boyfriend.” The statement is true, but what stabbed me was your saying “You.” I instantly thought of the child in the Haggadah who says “You,” separating himself from the family. Your sister’s tragedy came about partly because she fell into a mistake… but it also has something to do with turning away from the values of Study, Continuity, Menschlichkeit. Call it Heritage, or call it anything else, you know exactly what I mean. It’s Joe, in short. And Becky’s sorrows come from having married someone without the values of Study, Continuity, Menschlichkeit, Heritage. In a sense, she’s fallen out of her “class.”

It became impossible for me to debate these issues with Cynthia—my sister’s and daughter’s lives ruined because they chose not to marry Jews? Maybe I had some uncomfortable thoughts along those lines myself. Maybe.

In New York, at the Hadassah Harold U. Ribalow Award Ceremony for “The Kingdom of Brooklyn,” on November 22, 1993, Cynthia Ozick spoke in my behalf. Here are excerpts from her comments:

Although this occasion is a literary celebration, and I will certainly be speaking of Merrill Joan Gerber’s splendid body of work, I hope you will allow me to begin with a comment on friendship. This morning marks my third meeting with Merrill; we have looked into each other’s eyes only twice before. Our telephone conversations have been so infrequent that even our voices carry the surprise of unfamiliarity… Is this really you? And yet we are entangled in the kind of intimacy, mutual spilling of beans, and sympathetic anxieties that usually arise out of proximity – the friendship that ripens over cups of tea. I think Merrill and I will be drinking tea today but not then again perhaps for years. So how did this come about? On what does it depend? The answer is that ours is an epistolary friendship, a patient one, one that grows at the glacial pace of the United States Post Office. Although Merrill owns, I believe, every newfangled machine ever invented—she has a photocopier, she has a fax, she even has a bread-making machine—our correspondence crawls through the mail, and when a letter finally arrives it is already marinated in history. Merrill has given me her history and her heart and I have given her mine.

But it wasn’t always so. Our earliest acquaintance was hostile. Long, long ago, when Merrill’s work first came to my attention—it was a collection of short stories called Stop Here, My Friend—I wrote what must have been a mainly negative review. Today I remember almost nothing of what I said in that review. I probably complained that the characters although Jews were deficient in their Jewishness. That was my single direct encounter with Merrill for many years. When we finally met in person for the first time, in California, decades later, we instantly fell into a quarrel, which I’m afraid I started, on the whole question of Jewish viewpoint. It was I confess less a quarrel than a scolding ­—a one-sided assault on my part, aggressively intolerant. And even that wasn’t enough—it all boiled over into letters. Back-and-forth the letters went, mine nasty and Merrill’s nice, mine furiously polemical and Merrill’s sweetly sane.

Until one day I looked down at one of Merrill’s replies and understood in a sudden blaze of common sense and of marveling that my correspondent was, of all the writers I’ve known, among the kindest, most insightful, and intuitive, the most psychologically sensitive, the most reasoning and responsible. And surely the most forgiving.

To these qualities I added another one that counts in literature as stringently as it counts in life. Merrill is, above all and underneath all, a crucially honest writer. She is honest in her letters. She is honest in her op-ed pieces and she is honest in her fiction. In a time overcome by fictive inconclusiveness and confusion Merrill Joan Gerber writes in pursuit of illumination and penetration.

But what about the Jews? Consider this generously abundant writer’s last four books, [which] reveal the lives of contemporary Jews as they sometimes really are. Would I today want to argue with Merrill over whether her Jewish characters have conscious Jewish commitments or promise what we like to call Jewish continuity? Never. I revise and chastise and regret my old acrid self… The lives of Jews as they are lived before our bewildered and wondering eyes are as real as a table, a glass, an apple. The way we live now is the Jewish truth, and in the hands of a consummately honest writer will be drawn, as honesty always is, toward metaphysical grounds.

Of course it was gratifying to hear that Cynthia had forgiven me what she considered my lapses and decided that my work provided, in its way, access to what she called “a Jewish truth.” I considered once again the words Cynthia spoke: “I revise and chastise and regret my old acrid self.” Could she have meant it? She had said it to a room full of Hadassah members and many Jewish friends and writers. Two of my daughters were there, one with her fiancé. Yet, I feared that at any moment she could and would strike out against me if I did not live up to her standards. I had the sense that she dismissed as worthless other Jewish writers who did not fit her definition of “real” Jews. Many of her own stories about Jewish lives were vibrant, humorous, delightful. Two of her tales, “The Shawl” and “Rosa,” revealed her horror at the agonies of the holocaust. What she had learned about Hitler’s concentration camps had shaped her view of life. Ten years older than I was, Cynthia experienced World War Two as a teenager. The nightmares, the killings, were real to her. She was just a year older than Anne Frank. Nothing was more important to her than Jewish commitments and ultimately the creation and survival of Israel. Yet, I lived with other visions, other attitudes, less exclusive, less stringent, less limiting than hers were.

The years passed along—I saved all of Cynthia’s letters in white boxes with carbon copies of my letters paper-clipped to hers. When e-mail came into her life, in 2004, Cynthia took to the ease of it with delight, though she always claimed she was helpless with gadgets.

We both suffered periods of deep gloom.

June 19, 2004

Merrill—As for your having the blues: I did somehow sense it. And what we have to do with the dyings all around us, and the declines, is defy them and yell Never Mind! The job of the living is to live. The job of writers is to write, and what a lucky thing this is, when you look around and see how the great mass of humankind doesn’t have this impulse, which lasts as long as life lasts: or anyhow until disability and death.

In time my children grew up. I buried both my mother and my aunt. In 1994, my middle daughter, Joanna, got married. While she was in college she had met Cynthia’s daughter, Rachel, when both were studying in Israel. Joanna’s wedding, complete with rabbi, chupa, Klezmer band and dancing, delighted Cynthia. (Was this when she sent me a present—a sundial to put in the yard, with these words carved into it: “Count Only Happy Hours”?) Cynthia and I continued to live, as the saying goes, “in each other’s mouths.”

Then around the time of the coming election of 2008, something changed in the tone of Cynthia’s letters:

June 9, 2008
Very dear Merrill,

‘You are in my mind,’ you say beautifully and touchingly. And you are in my mind indelibly. But well, the thing you won’t let into your mind are my political harangues! (When Obama won, I felt literally emotionally sick. His speech to Aipac had as its undercurrent: Unlike Bush, I’m preparing to twist your arm, Israel. And of course the backtrack on Jerusalem. What counts more, ‘health care’ (as if it doesn’t exist in this country, or annihilation? Another harangue on the way, unless I can’t manage to get it to you)…. the last Democrat I voted for was Gore, but then he hadn’t yet turned himself into Chicken Little.

OK, so do you want to declare a moratorium on all political talk?

Love! C

And then again from Cynthia, on June 26, 2008:

Happy Anniversary! The only other teenage romance I know of which culminated in very early marriage (at 19) didn’t last. So what’s the secret? My guess is Joe. You are the volatile one. Joe is the steady one. (Obnoxious kosher note—regarding your going to The Red Lobster for your anniversary dinner, even though you say you did not eat a lobster… No one would enter a Red Lobster restaurant if the creature were called what it actually is: Red Cockroach. Which is exactly what a lobster is: same species, myriapoda, only bigger. And both eat carrion.) (Another lovely subject.)

Now Cynthia began sending me page upon page of right wing commentary, echoing in so many ways Fox News rants, which I essentially ignored, as I could see nothing to say in response. Obama’s election had clearly affected her in a way I found hard to understand. The new President, she wrote, was a “Haman in the White House.” Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, were bent upon Israel’s demise, and thus Cynthia threatened me that I must not vote for a Democrat at any cost. Such polemics were not for me, and I was disappointed, to say the least, that we had veered so far from our original conversations about writing, art, family life, literature and friendship.

Then another letter arrived.

August 19, 2010

Very dear Merrill,

Finally, finally, you’ve uttered a solid fact. Two of them, in fact. One, you elected Obama and two, you couldn’t stomach Palin. Instead of a pro-Israel stupid Palin, who would do the country and the Jews no harm (and couldn’t have succeeded to the presidency, anyhow, given that McCain, no great brain either, is alive and well), you and Joe are now responsible for a clever, sly, shrew’s ideologically radical Third-World minded enemy of Israel. (Whereby you failed to avoid an equally stupid stumbling fool of a Biden as vice president.) Was the so-called health bill more precious than a president who was certain NOT to sell Israel down the river, a thing that was manifest in Obama from the very beginning? What, after all, is the first priority? Our grandchildren’s lives. If the deep wounds Obama perpetrates aren’t quickly stanched, their generation will be adrift in a country that is inimical to their well-being, and it has already begun. What do you think will be the position, or the condition, of American Jews should Israel go down?

Love, C

And worse was to come.

February 27, 2015

[There is] the anti-semite in the White House, and what are the consequences for the very near future if Jews naively, gullibly, and yes, robotically, vote for the Democrats in 2016? American Jews have already elected a Haman, so anything is possible. The German Jews at least had enough perspective not to vote for der Fuhrer (though many believed naively, gullibly and yes, robotically, that it would all pass); but American Jews, content in our fleshpots, are likely to be fully self-destructive.

Purim is here. Mordechai says to Esther, Don’t think that you, in the palace, are exempt! Hence, don’t think that the foundation of hostility Obama is preparing within the Democratic Party will not hurt our grandchildren. To have America turn against Jews is deeply frightening, and what Obama is doing is not, as you shockingly put it, Merrill, “wrong.” It’s dangerous.

Obama an anti-semite! Dangerous? Haman in the White House? Obama who spoke with sane, fluid intelligence, Obama with his fair-minded, compassionate belief that all people were worthy of respect and should be treated with kindness? I somehow had missed that he was a villain—I could find no evidence of it. How he loved his children (and other children), loved his wife and showed what a loving family life was about. How balanced he was, cool, thoughtful, brilliant. What had poisoned Cynthia’s mind to have her spit like a snake when saying Obama’s name? Her husband had fallen ill, she was chained to her home, she was embittered to a degree I couldn’t fathom. On one hand, she was a supremely gifted writer. On the other, she was willing to demean me and to speak with undisguised contempt about persons who mattered deeply to me and to other decent persons. Why was I able to continue to remain her friend when she was showing, more and more, something like hatred for me, accusing me of betraying the Jews? Cynthia, a worldly and sophisticated person, now suddenly seemed to hover menacingly above me like my father’s old-world mother, my angry grandmother Fanny, who had hated the name my mother gave me (not Jewish-sounding) —and, grabbing the baby, me, from my mother’s arms, demanded that my mother change my name to Masha after some dead relative of hers. So that my mother had to snatch me back and, in the future, could not bear to bring me to see my father’s mother.

Cynthia’s home life, with a caretaker in the house for her husband, seemed to imprison and punish her.

May 14, 2015

A wasp in the kitchen, a big crazily flying thing. I struggled to swat it; nothing could stop the evil thing. Later, Miss Thompson, who stays the night, accidentally encountered it on the floor in the dark, and, wearing only socks, inadvertently stepped on it, and got stung! I have no pictures in the computer, and I have no laptop. I never look back to anything, unless it’s for a specific need. Ah, 2008: the beginning of our … what to call it? Deterioration? Because the “hope and change” demagoguery came along, and the do-gooders (meaning self-inspired feel-gooders) fell for it, and the deterioration crept in, until its culmination right now. Also 2008 was two years before the more than five years that this home-bound New Life began. I can hardly recall what the old way of life felt like: freedom to sleep, freedom to write.

And then, finally:

July 14, 2015

Merrill, this note comes with neither a bang nor a whimper, but purely in the light of reality. It ought to have come sooner —I didn’t realize that I had left some ambiguity. First, though, please know that I wish every imaginable blessing for health and joy and fulfilling productivity to you and all your beloveds, Joe and brilliant daughters and beautiful and gifted grandchildren, and that this wish will go on and on and on, without surcease, in all its truth and fervor. Still, our venerable correspondence has, as you must know, come to an end. We have already been divided for the last several years, I in sometimes furious frustration and you in a frequent sense of insult. I can no longer bear the frustration, and you, who have, I believe, taken the desire to engage for insult, hardly deserve to continue to feel offended. We live under different understandings.

Your Weltanschauung is not mine, and vice versa. We are not, as they say, on the same page. So let us turn the page to where it reads Finis, and bring an end to mutual irritation and despair.

Be well and happy, Cynthia

No farewell speech could dissuade me from replying. I continued to write Cynthia, to remind her again that friends are not always on the same page. “The focus of our correspondence,” I wrote, “as you required in recent years, has backed us both into a corner. The ‘quotidian,’ as you call it, has lost interest for you whereas it is still the center of my world. You could no longer agree that it has any value up against the political subjects that you are totally devoted to now.”

July 17, 2015

Merrill, I am truly sorry that I may be causing you pain; I am neither hard-hearted about the possibility nor oblivious to it… But if we were to resume, we would instantly be back where we were, and to be there is simply unsustainable. Case in point (though to bring this up is likely to catapult us right into the abyss again): when you speak of “the political subjects that you are totally devoted to now” my heart sinks. Those were “political” subjects? If that’s how you categorize them, it’s hopeless. My last note to you was originally captioned “Day of Infamy.” I finally deleted those words, recognizing that you wouldn’t have the slightest insight into their meaning (vide the Book of Esther), though their meaning, and their intent, was on that very day scorching the earth. Cynthia

Now she had clearly informed me that she considered me ignorant, and no longer worthy of her time, her friendship, or her attention. Six months later, when I had my birthday on March 15 of 2017, I realized Cynthia would turn 89 on April 17. I found myself writing to her once again:

April 17, 2017

Cynthia, I’m 79 years old, we are ten years, one month and two days apart. When you bid me goodbye, you wrote you could not in all honesty resume our “venerable correspondence.” But you said “You will make something of it, I know. It is, after all, a Story. Or even a Novel.”

What do you think of perhaps an Essay? After receiving your letter yesterday… I imagined—with a pounding heart—writing about our correspondence. Is it possible you would give me permission to quote from some of your letters to me?

Perhaps you could not. But I would have something new to live for and write about if you could allow it. Our lives were woven together for thirty-three years. Today I wish you Happy Birthday. Merrill

April 17, 2017

Merrill, thank you for the birthday wishes! The number is daunting, and in my delusion I feel no relation to it. But the world judges by the impression it leaves. Mine the letters for whatever you wish. Even as an essay it will emerge as a story: your story. And your story will be the last word, since I can’t conceive of ever writing about any of this. I don’t have any autobiographical impulse at all. You write that “our lives were woven together.” And wasn’t that precisely the trouble? That they were not woven together? How many hundreds of times did I appeal to you to see how half of my obsessions never reached you at all, since in the nature of things you couldn’t participate in them? But whoa (and woe): that last sentence is perilous, since it verges on the trouble starting up all over again. This, along with much else, was central to how we were NOT woven together.

So stay well and happy and write freely!

April 18, 2017


In your address at the Ribalow Prize ceremony, you ask, “But what about the Jews?… Would I today want to argue with Merrill over whether her Jewish characters have conscious Jewish commitments, or promise what we like to call Jewish continuity? Never. I revise and chastise and regret my old acrid self.”

Your criticism of me was evident at the first moment you reviewed my first book… and never changed. Nor was revised. I’m sorry you can’t continue to love a person who loves you. You split with me most forcefully over a coming election, and how is it now, to have that illiterate and dangerous person as your president? Will he save Israel? He has divided the Jews in our country, creating hatred between the Orthodox and the other Jews. Whose spokesperson thinks there were “Holocaust Centers”? A man who can’t speak a sentence, who Phillip Roth said has a vocabulary of 77 words. An idiot.

It’s a bitter time, in our country, and in your heart. So my obsessions were not yours. We shared years of life, hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of confidences. You do wish me well, thank you, but also you say a final goodbye and leave me with a broken heart.